Tuesday 23 January 2018

Jones strike helps Reds keep up with title rivals

Aston Villa 0 Man Utd 1

PHil Jones' first-half goal gave Manchester United their fourth 1-0 win from their past five Premier League matches and ensured Aston Villa got no reward for an insipid performance. United's own showing was not massively better, but it was sufficient.

United arrived on the back of solid but sparkle-free victories. Although in touch with Manchester City at the top of the table, Alex Ferguson is still grappling to find the right balance in his team, not least for the crucial midweek Champions League showdown in Basel, and at Villa Park he tried another new tactic, deploying Phil Jones alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield, where dynamism and creativity have seldom coexisted for United this season.

They would be helped by the fact that Villa's captain, Stilian Petrov, was only fit enough for a place on the bench, Jermaine Jenas therefore making his first start for the club since joining on loan from Tottenham. Villa were also without Charles N'Zogbia, who was omitted for disciplinary reasons, with manager Alex McLeish claiming the player had not shown up for a session with the club physiotherapist during the week.

The scrappy opening to the match will have done nothing to reassure either manager but a worse development awaited for Ferguson: in the eighth minute Javier Hernandez went to run into space in anticipation of a pass but instead fell over, seemingly having twisted his left ankle. The injury to the Mexican, who had scored four of United's last six league goals, forced United into an early substitution. Antonio Valencia came on, with Nani pushing up to join Wayne Rooney in attack.

The Portuguese then set up the first shot of the game, a wild effort from 20 yards by Jones in the 15th minute. Four minutes later the pair combined to better effect to give United the lead. Nani pulled out to his more familiar position on the wing and received a pass from Patrice Evra before clipping a perfect cross into the centre, where Jones, showing the instincts of a seasoned midfielder, waited between the centre backs and prodded into the net from close range.

United had not done much to get in front against a home side who were offering little resistance and no threat. Unperturbed by abject Villa, United began to find fluency. Slick interplay between Rooney and Valencia in the 25th minute led to the Ecuadorian chipping a cross to Nani, who met it firmly with a header from 14 yards, bringing a good save from Shay Given.

Villa had to change goalkeepers in the 37th minute after Given suffered a suspected hamstring injury. Brad Guzan came on in his place. At the other end, Anders Lindegaard, having been given a rare start as Ferguson rested David De Gea, might have welcomed a chance to show what he could do, but Villa did not muster a single shot in the first half.

If Villa had a game plan, it was not obvious. They did at least inject some urgency into their play at the start of the second half. But United remained in cruise control, occasionally shooting at Guzan from distance. Stephen Warnock made a tackle in the 57th minute to foil Rooney after Villa had given the ball away.

On the hour mark, Jenas became the third player to leave after pulling up with an injury. His replacement, Emile Heskey, should have equalised in the 69th minute when Villa created their best chance of the game. However, after Richard Dunne headed on a corner the striker nodded over from three yards.

Other title challengers might have destroyed a team playing as bleakly as Villa but United remained curiously vulnerable, a fact that eventually emboldened the home side. Lindegaard had to make his first serious save of the match in the 76th minute to tip over a James Collins header. United finished the match on the back foot.


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